Thursday, March 31, 2005

An Extinct and an Endangered Bear

An Extinct and an Endangered Short-Nosed Bear at La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles Posted by Hello

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Working on a book

Dear Friends,

I’m delighted you have all enjoyed and hopefully learned something from my week-old blog. Creating it has been most therapeutic and has encouraged me to pursue another career in writing, in addition to performing and teaching. I am busy working on a book which is going to be quite time-consuming and probably will diminish my blog output for the time being.

I come from a long line of professional writers and journalists, so following this path seems quite natural to me. Although English is my third language, writing in it has come naturally to me. Some of my expressions may sound foreign to a Yankee and occasionally misunderstood, but all in all I’m able to communicate my messages clearly. If Isaac Bashevis Singer could master this tongue, originally not his own, so can I.

Readers, the outpouring of support from you has been a tremendous source of strength to me. It is heartwarming to know there is goodness and compassion in this world, not just backstabbing, ill will and greed.


Every violinist ought to carefully study Leopold Auer's 99-page little book "VIOLIN PLAYING As I Teach It." Although it probably is a product of a ghost writer, it makes a terrific read, especially in the chapters that discuss vibrato, portamento, nuance and style. Having heard recordings of so many Auer’s students, it is hard to realize this great teacher actually hated both glissandi and continuous vibrato, dumping them in the same basket of special effects.

"Like the portamento, the vibrato is primarily a means used to heighten effect, to embellish or beautify a singing passage or tone. Unfortunately, both singers and players of string instruments frequently abuse as they do the portamento, and by so doing they have called into being a plague of the most inartistic nature, one to which ninety out of every hundred vocal and instrumental soloists fall victim. -- Resorting to the vibrato is an ostrich-like endeavor to conceal bad tone production and intonation from oneself and from others not only halts progress in the improvement of one's fault, but is out and out dishonest artistically. -- No, the vibrato is an effect, an embellishment; it can lend a touch of divine pathos to the climax of a phrase or the course of a passage, but only if the player has cultivated a delicate sense of proportion in the use of it.”

Interestingly, this book was published in 1929 when most soloists already were busy doing what Auer advised them not to. Although YsayĆ« was using a small, tight vibrato much of the time, it wasn’t until Fritz Kreisler that the world heard a new sound. Around the time the book came out, the violin world was divided into two camps, those for the vibrato and those against. Eventually the new sound won and all the famed soloists representing the old camp fell out of favor and were simply forgotten. Vasa Prihoda, anyone?

In orchestras the ban on vibrato lived a lot longer, like it did (and still does) with choral singing. I can remember old orchestra violinists from my childhood who would instantly frown if they heard someone vibrate. Having a father who also was a conductor had its perks and it meant I was able to join his orchestra in the back of the second violins at the age of 5, far before my feet could reach the ground. I befriended many outstanding musicians who traveled to my home town to help out in concerts. The principal oboe of the Helsinki Philharmonic even taught me circular breathing before I was 10 and I watched him make reeds very carefully. Quite a few orchestra violinists had worked in prewar Germany and their training was with the traditions of the old school.

Of course as a youngster I was very impressionable. I must have been 12 or 13 when my father took me to hear Zino Francescatti play during the Sibelius Week in Helsinki. We sat in the front row in the old University auditorium, less than 15 feet from this wonderful soloist performing both the Beethoven and Sibelius concerti during two nights. My mother’s plans for my business career were put aside and I decided to become a violinist instead, which obviously gave great joy to my father. Now, Francescatti was a vibratissimo man and I wanted to have a sound just as good as his and did actually a commendable job at it. Even the sound I heard in Heifetz’s master class was no match to what I had witnessed years before. Of course I loved the sound and style of Kreisler and Thibaud whose playing I knew extremely well from the old 78s my teacher made me listen to. But I was still hypnotized by Zino’s extreme vibrato.

It took a long time for me to understand that constant wide vibrato was not necessarily a magic bullet. I got hold of a recording of the Franck Sonata, played by Thibaud. There he uses almost no vibrato at all during the first movement. It was eye-opening, partly because the music sounded so magical and partly because the composer must have meant it to be played in that way. All of a sudden I realized there was a world of music that I hadn’t really been exposed to, traditions that went back a couple hundred years. Covering everything with never-ending vibrato was like pouring Chinese sweet and sour sauce on every dish of food: it makes everything taste the same.

Although I am no great fan of “authentic” baroque performances, mainly because so many people involved in those are simply not very good, I still applaud the effort of bringing music back to what it was supposed to be. Also, dropping the pitch of an A to 415 is phony: the actual pitch has been all over the map. 415 is comfortable because people with perfect pitch can tolerate it, by transposing everything down a half-step. When the tuning is in between, we could as well be on Mars, as we hear music but it doesn’t really make any sense. I still have nightmares trying to play with the great romantic organ of my home town’s church. It was tuned to 435 and torture for me.

However, many attempts of recreating the sound Mozart and Beethoven had in mind has been enlightening. Old style instruments, although modern in construction, have such different tone color. No ear plugs are ever needed and even the most delicate inner lines can be heard. Even a modern orchestra should with relative ease be temporarily converted into a “period” sound-alike. Unfortunately, if half the players try the “new” style and half don’t, the result is disastrous.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Leaving town

I have to leave town... Don't anyone get your hopes up, it is just to visit my month-old granddaughter. I'll return to blogging either from there or once I return, so keep checking.

I have had an outpouring of support, in letters, emails; from people on the street. Thank you all. I especially appreciated an incredible, heartfelt, typewritten letter from a Grand Old Man of Music, a most respected presence in the musical community. I shall always treasure it.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Winter War

My faithful readers, here is your history lesson for today:

On November 30th, 1939, before he knew Hitler was going to betray him and not honor the Ribbentrop pact, Stalin attacked its Northeastern neighbor Finland. What he thought was going to be a piece of cake and matter of a few days turned out to be one of the bloodiest and toughest battles of all times. What is known as the Winter War, during the next 104 days the Finns put up an incredible fight. It was the coldest winter of the century and Stalin's army wasn't prepared to meet the enemy that climbed up into the trees in their white camouflage outfits, and caused absolute havoc, shooting from where they couldn't be seen from the white snow, destroying their enemies in hoardes. Although the Soviet Union wouldn't give an accurate number of their fallen, some estimates put the count at 1 million vs. 20,000 Finnish casualties. The entire Red Army was aimed at little Finland who was fighting without anyone's help. This was a most humiliating turn of events for Stalin and an example of what the Finnish word sisu means.

In more modern times, my countrymen have won praise for being the most honest and least corrupt people in today's world. They also excel in producing fabulous musicians: composers, instrumentalists, singers and especially orchestra conductors. Not bad for a nation whose population is considerably less than that of Washington State.

I am darn proud of my roots and the mandate it gives me to defend what is right.

Incidentally, my last name "Talvi" translates as "Winter".

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


One of most difficult and misunderstood aspects of playing the violin is learning when and how to use a glissando, to slide from one note to another. This is a somewhat mystic art form itself, and sort of a musician's Kabbalah. Nothing can make listening more pleasurable than if the instrumentalist knows when to a use a tasteful glissando, and how to execute one to perfection. Even more important is to know when not to attempt to do one. The French school was responsible for developing rules for different types of glissandi, although the first master and founding father of beautiful playing was Austrian-born Fritz Kreisler. He was also the first famous violinist to use continuous vibrato but more on that another time.

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The slow movement of the J.S. Bach Concerto for Two Violins was at some point recorded by Kreisler and Efrem Zimbalist. They tried to outdo each other in the glissando department and the result sounds like a pair of vocal male cats in March having a go at it. But all in all, glissandi can add a wonderful personal touch, a perfect spice to bland food. If you listen to an old recording of Kreisler playing the Albeniz Tango, tears will roll down your face if you have any sensitivity left. Then listen to Jacques Thibaud play the same piece and you are astonished to find how differently it is executed but equally magnificently. In fact you soon learn to tell the two masters apart so easily you'll have no trouble knowing who is playing if you hear their playing in a random order. You won't be as successful with present day Juilliard violinists produced in an assembly line!

The violin, ideally, is a instrumental replacement for the human voice. If you can get your hands on duo recordings by Kreisler and the famed tenor John McCormack you'll instantly realize and appreciate this kinship. Unfortunately in both fields the art has been declining for a long time. Much of this can blamed on teachers who themselves were poorly taught and often were bad players or singers to start with, unable to demonstrate things. 30 seconds of showing how for a gifted student is worth more than thousands of words. Much good is a violinist who knows how to play the instrument in theory but not in practice!

Part of reason glissandi came to be was the need to shift from one position to another, usually in order to keep a melody or other figure on one or two strings. Every string has a totally different color and the beauty of a musical line is often ruined by careless crossing to a brighter string, just because it is easier to do so. However, every shift need not be a slide, quite the contrary. A glissando is after all an embellishment that should be used sparingly and with great care.

In orchestral playing a glissando falls into the category of special effects. A seemingly good idea can and often does produce horrific results. Once in a while a composer marks a line from one note to another, indicating portamento, but this didn't happen in music before Mahler's time.

My advice to fellow musicians: learn from the past, and honor and admire what is now available on historical recordings. Of course styles have changed as fashion always does, but the basic truth is out there. And to conductors: remember my comparison to the Kabbalah. This topic should be left alone unless you have spent a lifetime studying its mystic message and meaning.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

To Memorize Or Not

Every performing instrumentalist faces the issue of playing from memory. Most of us have over the years managed to store an enormous amount of repertoire in our brains' memory circuits. Yet the thought of performing something in public can be a scary thought. Obviously, if someone is to play a work only once, doing so by heart seems a pointless waste of time, energy and nerves. There is a difference in knowing a piece from memory and being able to execute it faultlessly in front of an audience. Most of us, at least the sensitive ones, have a fear of playing wrong notes or just making a fool of ourselves in front of a crowd.

I maintain that in order to understand a musical work, one cannot be tied to the written text and has to have every note imprinted in his/her memory. Even if one decides to keep the sheet music available, it should be for reference only and counter possible mistakes by a musical partner, such as an accompanist. Those can become quite unnerving: if you expect to hear something and it is not there or shows up in a wrong place, your first reaction is that you have made a mistake. Then there are those unwritten rules of playing sonatas with music. In good old days it was considered a sacrilege for a violinist to perform a Beethoven or Brahms sonata without the music in front of him/her. One didn't necessarily open the book but it was there out of respect, the same way a man of cloth would not quote the Bible without having the book at hand.

As a teenager in1967 I was in Vienna, Austria, and bought a ticket to hear David Oistrakh play the Beethoven Violin Concerto during the Festwoche. I had already heard him play numerous times and was looking forward to this concert as Oistrakh was considered a Beethoven expert and had performed this piece probably more than a thousand times. During a first movement the soloist got lost and panicked. One memory lapse was followed by another and yet another. I remember counting eight major ones. To a young unknown soloist this would have meant an abrupt end to his/her career but since Oistrakh was a hero, the audience responded with an instant standing ovation and the applause took easily a quarter of an hour to die down.